Fifteen years ago, in the dark, pre-smartphone days of the internet, a 15-year-old kid with the online handle SuperYoshi uploaded a video titled “The Adventures of Super Mario 3 Remixed.” The video remixed an episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, a short-lived cartoon series based on Nintendo’s mascot character, which had first aired in 1989.
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but SuperYoshi had created a genre: one which preceded YouTube by a mere several months, although it would become synonymous with the video streaming service. YouTube Poops, as they are known, became an artform perfectly attuned to the internet age: provocative, absurdist, surreal, and with a good dose of trollololol devilishness.
“My best description of YTP would be an analogy of digital graffiti,” YouTuber EmpLemon, a dedicated Pooper, told Digital Trends. “YTPs take existing, usually professional, media and intentionally desecrates them with ridiculous editing. More abstractly, YTP is a medium for free expression and experimentation through editing, a skill which is typically viewed as rigid and precise.”
Now 15 years old, YouTube Poops are as old as their creator when he uploaded the very first one. Their weird brand of humor has become the internet’s de facto sense of humor: the concentrate from which the very dankest memes are derived. Here in 2019, memes are the source of fascination, frustration and, in many cases, derision. They are an artform that could not exist outside of online culture.
And yet, despite their important role in establishing meme culture, YouTube Poops get no respect. Do they deserve it? Despite their cartoonishly scatalogical name, our verdict: You bet they do!
What makes a YouTube Poop?
EmpLemon, like SuperYoshi, was a kid when he got into the world of YTP. He recalls them popping up in the recommendations bar on YouTube, back in the days before it became the altogether more corporate, Google-owned leviathan that it is today. “I think what drew me in was the idea of watching innocent cartoon characters that I grew up watching, [such as Spongebob Squarepants], being radically transformed to swear, murder, and do drugs through simple editing,” he said. “It blew my mind as a kid that this was even possible, so eventually I looked up some tutorials and decided to try it myself.”
What punk music was to the pop literate kids of the 1970s, so YouTube Poops are to today’s group of digital natives.
Agreeing on exactly what is and isn’t a YouTube Poop is a matter of surprising levels of debate. The core ingredients, as EmpLemon notes, is the subversion of mainstream media content: frequently cartoons and popular movies or TV shows, although not exclusively. They routinely evoke pop culture from an earlier time in life, giving them a nostalgic quality beneath their layers of adult cynicism and teenage snark.
Aesthetically, they owe something to the frenetic editing style that MTV popularized in the 1980s. That style of film editing was typified by fast, non-linear cuts which placed focus less on character and plot than on mood, feeling, and totally rad locations. In the case of YouTube Poops, this is built on with a range of techniques designed to create glitchy repetition, humorous juxtaposition or, sometimes, plain old shock and annoyance. Trimming sentences to create profanity is a favorite. So is a stutter loop, in which a small section of video is made to repeat over and over. On the audio front, you can expect volume levels to be maxed out and distorted, or source audio to be pitch-shifted so that the effect makes spoken words sound like a song. The central tenet: it can be carried out by an average person sitting in front of their computer at home. What punk music was to the pop literate kids of the 1970s, so YouTube Poops are to today’s group of digital natives.
“YTP is essentially a form of content where you can get away with tricks that you couldn’t anywhere else,” EmpLemon said. “Nowhere else can you get away with deliberately blowing out the eardrums of any viewer unlucky enough to be watching your videos with headphones. No other video genre embodies the mantra of ‘because I can’ like YTP.”
Enter the remix culture
Remix culture is, of course, nothing new. The idea of taking fragments of existing cultural artefacts and transforming them into something new has existed in the pop culture ether for decades. It’s a technique that has been used in everything from the sampling of old soul music in hip hop to the experimental “cut-up” writing styles of William Burroughs, which influenced songwriters like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
Despite its low barrier to entry, the medium has more in common with the world of high art than its creators might think.
What YouTube Poops added to this was the sheer overload of frames-within-frames of cultural references. The art world has long relied on audience’s coming to works with a certain sphere of reference to draw upon. Renaissance artists assumed you would know the works of the Bible, thereby informing the paintings you were looking at. When Andy Warhol filled Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery with paintings of Campbell’s Soup Tins in 1962, he knew it would prove controversial because intellectual art lovers had long sneered at the masses’ love of canned food. A good YouTube Poop throws similar (but updated) references, with all their built-in inferences, at the screen at a rate that would dazzle all but the most hardened of channel surfers and online browsers.
Combined with the constant evolution of the form, and the fine line between remixing the past and not retreading old memes, it can make the world of YouTube Poop a daunting thing for outsiders. Despite its deceptively low barrier to entry, this gives the medium perhaps more in common with the world of high art than its creators might think.
In the book The Dehumanization of Art, the late Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset argues that the purpose of modern art is, almost entirely, to divide viewers into those who understand it and those who do not. It’s a social litmus test, and the answer dictates how you are perceived. Art, Gasset writes, functions “like a social agent which segregates from the shapeless mass of the many two different castes of men.” There are those who are illustrious and those who are vulgar. Similarly, there are those who will understand a particularly dank Spongebob meme and those who do not.
The golden age of Poop
Today, the golden age of YouTube Poops is arguably over. As with every other corner of the internet, they have become fragmented; less of a community than a series of communities with their own interests. Instead of YouTube Poops more generally — an era EmpLemon describes as being characterized by Poopers with names including Dinner, Mah Boi, Losta Spaghetti, Weegee, Pingas, and others — there are now sub-communities differentiated by source material. These have allowed the references-within-references to flourish and become more obscure and specialized, while editing advances have pushed the boundaries of what’s possible within the genre.
YouTube Poops continue to have an outsized influence on internet culture as a whole.
And yet, YouTube Poops continue to have an outsized influence on internet culture as a whole. They are the source from whence many a reaction GIF or throwaway Reddit one-liner emerges. They are, in some senses, a kind of ground zero for modern meme culture.
Recently, memes have fought a slew of new battles which challenge their immediate future. There are initiatives like the European Union’s divisive Article 13, which could threaten the spread of memes by cracking down on perceived copyright violations. (Not good for a medium built on repurposing!) There’s also the adoption of meme culture as a “we’re hip” ploy by companies, just as they did with skater culture, punk, hip hop, and countless other forms of DIY counterculture in previous decades. Finally, there are the accusations that meme culture feeds into a bigger theme of far right toxicity: designed to exclude and harass.
“In my opinion, the biggest misconception surrounding memes is that they have a definitive goal or end,” EmpLemon said. “Internet memes have exploded into mainstream culture over the past few years, and a lot of people don’t really know how to react to them. It just so happens that a lot of meme-based humor is derived from YTP-based humor, where both can be very experimental and open-ended. It dismays me to see memes painted under the partisan brush of a political agenda, or shamelessly shilled by a billion dollar corporation to sell more burgers to young people.”
Can’t get no satisfaction
Now a decade-and-a-half removed from the first YouTube Poops, long enough has passed to start critically appraising the medium. After all, as much as corporate approval might irk some of its creators, mainstream acceptance can also mean giving credit where it’s due.
But this hasn’t really happened yet.
Many who disregard the medium are oblivious to the absurd amount of effort that some Poopers put into their projects.
“The general lack of respect for the artistic merit of YTP certainly confuses me, especially considering how people are typically very open to various obscure artistic genres on the web,” EmpLemon said. “I believe this discrimination stems from a general lack of understanding of what YTP actually is. Many who disregard the medium are oblivious to the absurd amount of effort that some Poopers put into their projects. Anything from Awful Fawful or Aliantos likely takes as much dedication and skill as any piece you see hanging in an art museum. What puts YTPs over the top in my opinion is the immersion. If you simply allow yourself to treat these videos as subjective expressions of creativity, you may find yourself transported to a different realm.”
EmpLemon enjoys a lot of modern art, he says. “But nothing really compares to YouTube Poop.” Just as he was an early adopter of YouTube Poops, maybe this opinion will one day be more commonplace. We’ll have to wait and see.